Standing as the capital of the country and one of the oldest cities, you know you can't miss out on a trip to Santo Domingo.
If you'll be spending any time in the Dominican Republic, you'll likely be pulled into the vibrant capital city for at least one visit! Our volunteers spending a whole semester living in the DR love spending a weekend in Santo Domingo, then making another trip here because it's the ultimate jumping-off spot to pristine beaches, thundering waterfalls, and other can't-miss activities along the island's southern coastline.
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Our Favorite Things To Do
Strolling Around Zona Colonial
This is absolutely a highlight to Santo Domingo that you can't miss this, especially if you're a history buff. The Zona Colonial is a neighborhood of the city and an area that marks where Columbus settled in the New World — he walked these streets! The entire area is an official UNESCO site, filled with cobblestone streets and ancient buildings, set alongside the coast. It really does feel like you took a little side trip to Europe, thanks to the Spanish influence found here (we can't get enough of the white architecture against the red brick).
Zonal Colonial is such a unique aspect of the Dominican Republic, and something you should plan to visit just for the experience — in contrast to the rest of the country's landscape, it almost feels like you've stepped into a different country! It's a beautiful space, full of around 300 buildings to admire, Spanish-styled architecture and art, plus there are some official museums in this area if you'd like to pay a small fee to learn more.
Definitely bring your camera and just block out a morning or afternoon of unrushed wandering around the streets. I'd say 2-3 hours is plenty of time. The zone is about 11 small blocks plus a little coastal area. It's easy to get to, no matter where you stay your hostel can help you know how to get here. We've also outlined some particularly pretty areas to make sure you stop off at.
Some Zona Colonial Tips
There are locals that will guide you around Zona Colonial, explaining historical sites if that's more your speed. Or, you can just DIY it and get a bit blissfully lost (like I did!). I loved just wandering around the zone and going at my own pace (instead of following a guided crowd), but both options work great.
Once you arrive, you'll be exploring on foot! Some of the cutest streets are pedestrian-only, and you're going to want to take tons of photos, shop from vendors on the street, and stop in cute little cafes for lunch — so just plan on walking it. Once you get closer to the coast, you can also rent a cute little bike to explore with — There are usually bike rentals down by the Plaza de la Hispanidad, which is another spot I recommend seeing.
Make sure to keep a bit of cash on hand. While most sites in the area are free, there are some museums you pay to get into (around $1-$2) and there are some ice cream vendors which is perfect for those hot, humid days.
- Ozama Fort, which was built in Columbus' lifetime.
- Casa Colon, the first castle built in the Americas (it's now a museum)
- Altar of the Nations, see the tombs of the DR's founding fathers
Basilica Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor, America's first cathedral*
Parque Colón, a park and statue of Christopher Columbus
Plaza de España, get great views here!
- Fortaleza Ozama, the oldest fortress in the Americas with views of the Ozama River
- Calle Las Damas, a gorgeous (and old!) cobblestone street
*There is a dress code at this cathedral. If you are not wearing a skirt/dress/pants that go past your knees and down to your feet, you'll need to rent a wrap to stay covered up. Shirts that cover your shoulders, chest, and back are also required.
We also love taking time to walk up the Calle Del Conde, which is a gorgeous pedestrian-only street (keep an eye out for draping bougainvillea flowers on your walk). This street is also filled with vendors selling art, souvenirs, and clothing.
If you're looking for particularly photogenic areas filled with brightly colored buildings, download a map of the area onto your phone and check out Calle Las Damas, Calle Padre Billini, Calle Isabel La Católica, Calle Padre Billini, , Calle Arzobispo Meriño, Callejón Macoris, Callejón de los Curas, or Callejón Parmenio Troncoso.
Shop At Mercado Modelo
Mercado Modelo is another spot our volunteers have been loving. It's a really big flea + souvenir market full of great finds. Make sure you bargain to get good deals and look around to compare prices!
It's just about a 10-15 minute walk from the center of Zona Colonial, so if you plug it into your Google Maps it's pretty easy to get there. Or you could grab an Uber if you'd rather (yep, Uber is a great way to get around Santo Domingo if you're looking for convenience).
Take The Cable Car Ride
If you haven't realized how much we love the architecture in this city, you'll get another reminder if you take a cable car ride! The Teleferico de Santo Domingo is the first urban cable car system in the whole Caribbean, largely inspired by the successful system established in La Paz, Bolivia. It's both a way to get around the city and a tourist attraction, giving you sweeping views of the colorful city below.
A single, roundtrip ticket is 60 pesos — 20 pesos for the way up, and 40 pesos for the way down. You can see how the cable car integrates with the local public transport (and where it takes you) on this map.
- Hours: 6:00 AM to 10:30 PM, Monday to Friday
6:00 AM to 9:00 PM, Saturday
8:00 AM to 9:00 PM, Sunday
Dance With The Locals
If you can, plan to be in Santo Domingo on a Sunday night. A past ILP volunteer shared this tip and we are all about getting into the culture like this:
"If you love dancing, you HAVE TO GO to their Sunday night party in the Monestario de San Francisco (in Zona Colonial). Literally everyone goes and there’s this tiny dance floor where everyone squeezes onto to dance. It was my favorite thing I did there and don’t worry about not knowing how to bachata because they will teach you!"
Visit The Botanical Garden
Have a relaxing afternoon walking around this sprawling garden (known as the Jardin Botanical Nacional if you know a bit of Spanish). It's one of the highest recommended things to do according to our ILP volunteers. Don't miss the Japanese Tea Gardens, it's one of the highlights. There is also a little train ride with English narration you can ride if you need a bit of a break from walking around in the heat.
- Address: Av República de Colombia, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Hours: 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM (6:00 PM on weekends)
Cost: $5 USD
Visit Los Tres Ojos National Park
While this is not actually in the city, it's a can't miss spot ... I mean some people head to Santo Domingo specifically so they can see this park. The national park has three (hence the name) limestone caverns all of which feature a beautiful lake. You can't swim in the water, but you can get a boat and tour around the caverns.
The park is best reached by taxi or Uber (just snag an Uber from downtown Santo Domingo) and the caves are open daily from 8:30-5:30. Plan for the Los Tres Ojos National Park excursion to take up about half of your day, so I recommend going in the morning so that you can explore Santo Domingo the rest of the day without worrying about time.
Get more info by clicking the link above; it's full of details you'll want to know.
We've had a few volunteers visiting this small aquarium (it's a nice break from the heat and the chance to see some ocean friends up close!). The main highlight is the glass tunnel you can walk through where you can gaze up and see sharks swimming above you. It's small, but can be a fun addition to your time in Santo Domingo.
- Address: Av. John F. Kennedy, Santo Domingo 10413, Dominican Republic
Hours: 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM
More info here.
See A Movie + Do Some Shopping
We talk a bit more about this in the foodie section below, but many volunteers love packing up a cute outfit or two (or buying one at the mall!) for a night out at the movie theater. Seeing the latest movie and doing a little shopping is a nice change of pace that ILP volunteers don't really get the chance to do anywhere else during their semester in the DR.
There are a few malls to choose from: BlueMall, Sambil Santo Domingo, and Agora Mall — Most typically hang around the Agora Mall which has stores like Converse, Zara Home, and more, plus a movie theater (along with a pretty impressive food court).
- Address: Av. John F. Kennedy, Santo Domingo 10129, Dominican Republic
Hours: Generally, 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM, with some time changes on the weekends.
Visit The Temple
If you're a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, you might be interested in visiting the temple in Santo Domingo. The easiest thing is to grab an Uber to the temple. Your ward in your local city may also be planning temple trips to Santo Domingo you can join, so keep an ear out for that too. Check this blog out to see more details on how to get there!
Since Santo Domingo is a hub for the rest of the island, lots of ILP volunteers stopover in Santo Domingo before hopping over to a couple of other spots farther east. Some of these are a day trip, while others are worth 2-3 days of your time.
The beaches around the city aren't that accessible, which is why we suggest spending your time in Santo Domingo proper, and tacking on another trip to a better beach (maybe like the Island Saona on Bayahibe?).
The city of Santo Domingo is really known for stunning architecture and history, so it makes sense to spend most of your time seeing that. If it was us, we'd just enjoy the city part of Santo Domingo and then use it as a jumping-off point to get to beach destinations that are further out.
If that's something you really want to do, Boca Chica is a favorite among the Santo Domingo locals. It is protected by a big coral reef and the water is very still — it's about a 45 minute taxi ride to the east of Santo Domingo, so factor that into your itinerary.
Beaches that are also to the east are Juan Dolio or Playa Caribe.
Found right on the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic, Punta Cana is a stretch of gorgeous beaches, lined with pretty all-inclusive resorts. It's a fun place to relax for a couple of days, where you can take day trips to swim in a gorgeous sinkhole or take a trip to Island Saona or Island Catalina. Punta Cana is about 3 hours away from Santo Domingo, and it's a pretty common route to get between to two.
Get your all-in-one-guide for Punta Cana here.
An absolute favorite island, unless you don't love beautiful beaches and the chance to hang out with some starfish. There are some tours that offer to pick you up in Santo Domingo, but Bayahibe is typically where the boat takes off to head to Saona. It's a perfect day trip from either Punta Cana or from Santo Domingo.
We have info about making the trip to Island Saona here.
Another favorite island is Island Catalina, which is right next to Isla Saona. It's a bit of bus ride from where our ILP volunteers are living, but lots closer if you're jumping off from Punta Cana or even Santo Domingo (though, Punta Cana is closer). We love snorkeling around Catalina.
Some volunteers think that Barahona has the most beautiful beaches in all of the Dominican Republic ... sounds like you'll need to check it out for yourself to see if that rumor is true! Barahona is about a three hour bus ride from Santo Domingo, making it an easy day trip or longer.
Salto de Socoa
These tumbling blue falls are just a taxi ride away from Santo Domingo (and are just as pretty as they look in the pictures!). Salto de Socoa is a gorgeous waterfall colored an impossibly pretty shade, with pools that make for an ideal swimming spot. It's a perfect half-day adventure to add to your Santo Domingo itinerary, especially since we have all the details to make your visit here a cinch.
Where To Stay
Deciding where to stay depends a lot on your budget. Are you splurging on this trip and want somewhere nicer to stay? Do you prefer to spend as little as possible on the hostel, so you can use your money elsewhere? If you're on a budget, check out Hostelworld or consider splitting an Airbnb with your ILP group.
We recommend staying as close to the Zona Colonial area as you can. It's just easier because that's where you'll want to be for everything.
Several previous volunteers have recommended Island Life Hostel because it has a rad location and is a fun, chill place to say.
La Choza hostel has great reviews, a cute little pool, and a great location so you can get into the city easily.
Some groups have taken the opportunity to have more of pampered Santo Domingo experience by staying at an Airbnb. You can find options for all budgets, but here are some examples of where past groups have stayed.
This downtown option (with quite the view of the city). We love the pool option at this Airbnb (and this Airbnb). (...and this one. We love a spot with a pool!) Or, rent out this penthouse for the weekend. Other groups have stayed here, if that's also helpful to know. Here's another spot ILP groups have stayed at ... you've got options!
A Few Tips
How Long Should I Plan For?
Santo Domingo can be done in just a day or two (making for a perfect weekend trip if you're coming from Puerto Plata), or you can also plan it into a 3-6 day trip exploring the southern side of the DR — combine Santo Domingo with another destination on a longer vacation if you have time. Places like Punta Cana, Starfish Island, or even Samana would be close enough to pair with a trip to Santo Domingo. Basically, whatever you have time for, you will have plenty to do in Santo Domingo!
If you're volunteering in the DR with ILP, you'll have weekends off (every Saturday and Sunday), plus you'll also get some vacation time. Since you can do Santo Domingo in just a couple of days, it makes for a perfect weekend trip, leaving your vacation days open to explore other places in the DR.
You can easily grab a bus after you're finished teaching on Friday and spend a dreamy weekend in Santo Domingo. Perfect.
Places To Eat
Another highlight of the city is the restaurants — groups have definitely taken advantage of the fast food places for a taste of home (you can find Taco Bell, KFC, Krispy Kreme, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Chilis, and a few others).
Here are some recommendations from past volunteers when it comes to places to eat:
- La Catrina (get the loaded nachos!)
- Sicily, for gourmet empanadas
- Mamey Liberia Cafe, a bookstore + cafe
- Falafel Zona Colonial, come for yummy hummus and shawarma
Paletas Bajo Cero, for very good popsicles
How To Get To Santo Domingo
Caribe Tours is the way to go. From Puerto Plata, you can book a bus with Caribe tours. You’ll travel in big air conditioned buses which is nice. It’s about 300 pesos to get to Santo Domingo, then you can use Santo Domingo as a jumping-off point to reach a bunch of other destinations (for about 350 pesos). What a steal.
Visit their website here.
The bus ride is about 3.5 hours from Puerto Plata if that gives you a frame of reference.
How To Get Around Santo Domingo
There are three ways to get around Santo Domingo — public buses, gua guas or taxis + Ubers.
The public buses have designated stops you can hop on (they also have AC, so bonus) but they tend to be a bit hard to figure out, schedule-wise. Gua guas are privately owned buses that are cheap and are more flexible (no AC though). To get one, you'll have to stand on the road and hail one down instead of waiting at a specific stop.
Taxis are everywhere but aren't metered and you decide on a price beforehand. Make sure you get a fair price before jumping in the back (if you walk away, they will bring you back and give you a better deal).
Uber is even better because you have the price in stone before you even jump in the car (and they're often cheaper than taxis plus you don't have to go back and forth over the price). We recommend you use Uber to help you get around unless you want to tackle public transit or risk taxis.
You know what's better than a vacation to the DR?
A semester abroad in the Dominican Republic! Just imagine four whole months of living in this beautiful country and volunteering with the International Language Programs. Learn more about becoming a volunteer for ILP in the DR!